Indian women’s football team head coach Thomas Dennerby said the players, staff, and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) were not at fault for the debacle of the hosts’ exit from the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Dennerby said there was nothing more that the players or the federation could have done to stay safe and detailed the chain of events that led to the incident that rocked Indian football.
Thomas Dennerby blamed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for ‘destroying’ the team’s dreams and accused them of ‘unprofessional’ handling of the bio-bubble. Dennerby said throughout the six months of staying together and training, there was never a hint of a positive case in the team. The first case of positive case, however, came in the team following their first training session right after they had stepped out of the quarantine.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on Monday had confirmed that Covid-hit India withdrew from the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and their remaining Group A matches stand canceled. India was unable to register a minimum of 13 players (including one goalkeeper) in the player selection list and start list for the match against Chinese Taipei on Sunday.
Speaking from his hotel room in Navi Mumbai, where the entire team is in isolation, Dennerby said the team and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could’ve done nothing more in terms of taking precautions.
“I am extremely proud of my players and staff. AIFF has done a wonderful job, nothing more could be done and no one from the federation could have changed the situation. Honestly, we are not happy with the AFC tournament organization and the lack of solution-oriented dialogue. We think in one way, our dream was destroyed but we are not blaming the whole AFC organization,” said Dennerby.
The AFC rules forced India to withdraw from the ongoing Asian Cup after the hosts were unable to field a mandatory 13 players for their match against Chinese Taipei last Sunday.
“We have strictly followed the AFC protocols. The girls stayed in their rooms all the time. All team meetings happened in the room. On the 16th we were tested for COVID-19 again, at that time first case in our camp was detected, which means, the first case of COVID happened when we came out of quarantine, how was it possible?”, Dennerby said.
“That’s strange, how is that even possible, we thought. The first feeling was it is someone within the bubble,” he added.
Dennerby revealed that the hotel staff was tested on January 17 and in their results, which came back on January 18, seven staff members tested positive. He, however, said that AFC did not share the report till January 19, leaving the team possible to infection.
“Did they understand this was not good? Probably, but no action at this time. AFC should have called the hotel directly and asked the (positive cases) to immediately leave the hotel and have no contact with the players whatsoever. But they did not. This was a big mistake. Why were they not tested every third day as a team?”
“No test for the hotel staff was done between the 11th and 17th, what we know anyway. The hotel staff was not tested every three days just like the teams. The staff was being tested after six days, we don’t know the reason. I think that was an unprofessional way to handle it in an AFC bubble, a championship, a WC qualification,” he said.
“The result of the test was given to the AFC on the 18th. (But) the AFC did not send the results to the hotel until the 19th. Seven hotel staff were infected with Covid, including the team India coordinator, kitchen staff, chef, housekeeping, service staff… all those taking care of us while we were quarantined. The staff was cleaning our rooms when we were inside,“ he said.
“Why didn’t the AFC send the report earlier? Why wait the whole day? AFC should have called the hotel directly and should have immediately asked them to leave the hotel. That was a really big mistake I think that was an unprofessional way to handle it in an AFC bubble, no explanation can be good enough.”
Following more tests, India had only 11 players available on the morning of the match. 10 had tested positive and two had fractures and were in a cast.
Dennerby further said that seven and a half hours before the start of the match, the AFC Tournament Director said that it was the team’s decision whether they want to field the available 11 plus two injured players to go ahead with the match.
“We couldn’t have disrespected the injured players by bringing them to the stadium in a wheelchair. Is that showing the team respect?” Dennerby asked.
By 5.30 pm, two more players had tested positive and India had only nine players available.
“Why wasn’t the match against Chinese Taipei canceled earlier? What was AFC waiting for? AFC knew the match couldn’t go ahead then why make it so painful for us? No respect, no compassion, no empathy,” he said.
“Did AFC want us to look like fools? At this moment when I am sitting here, we have 19 players and six members of the staff infected with COVID. Really heartbroken, almost six months of dreams and passion, destroyed.” Dennerby expressed his anger.
He said he was hurt by AFC’s lack of intent to find solutions.
“Telling them the news was the most painful part. You want it to be decided on the pitch. We didn’t even get a chance, it was not even a discussion. Could we bring some players in, U-17 was in another bubble? The federation tried everything. We just wanted to put an end to all the rumors and for you all to know the full story and how AFC handled it,” he added.
“Honestly, we are not happy with the AFC tournament organization or the lack of solutions or active dialogue. We think that in one way they destroyed our dreams. But we are not blaming the whole AFC organization. From my side, the biggest problem is that the AFC was not at all interested in having a discussion, on how to handle this embarrassing situation. No emotion for the players, no understanding about human beings.”
“The only answers we get when we are trying to have a dialogue along with them (AFC) is we are following all the protocol, read article 4.1 of special rules, no AFC staff at the hotel are infected, but how do we know if it true or not. What hurts me is that AFC is now trying to blame us, this is a shame,” added Dennbery in the press conference.
The statement that was published by them also read “In view of the above, India was unable to participate in the match, is to be held responsible for the match not taking place and is considered as to have withdrawn from the competition,” added the gaffer “which is completely false as they didn’t give us an option or even referring us. They simply went through their guidelines and withdrew us.”
AFC was too rigid in not having proper dialogue, “It is not me personally who tried to have the communication with AFC, but I read all the mails that arrived at our federation. If you read all these emails, you can say they did not even open the door to do something about this. As I said, it was painful to see the lack of solution-oriented dialogue.” said Dennerby.
“Hopefully, we all learn something out of this situation including AFC. Honestly, I do not want to blame anyone, in particular, I just wanted the put out the full story to stop all the rumors doing the rounds. I just wanted everyone to know that we followed all the protocols.”
Dennerby said as of now, 19 out of the 23 players in the squad and 6 staff members are infected and tested positive with Covid-19. All of them are currently in quarantine.
Dennerby said that after the goalless draw against Iran, ‘not many players were feeling good’. The following day, on January 21, the players were tested, which resulted in seven positive cases. The coach said they tried to have a ‘logical, reasonable dialogue with the AFC’ but they did not have a ‘solution-oriented’ discussion, eventually leading to India getting forced out of the competition.
“This is my worst feeling as a head coach ever. I and the team are devastated,” Dennerby said.
Dennerby is slated to return to the U-17 girls’ team to help prepare for the U-17 FIFA World Cup in October, his original assignment before he was elevated to the senior team role last August.
“I need to get some rest and go home to my family for a week or two. I haven’t met them since August. The break will give me back my good energy and we can start working hard with the U-17 team. This will motivate me to work work hard to try and have a successful World Cup,” said Dennerby.
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